The bishops’ Eucharistic vote: What just happened?

Analysis

Back in June, the U.S. bishops debated the idea of a document on the Eucharist — an idea, mind you, not a text —  for two hours and 56 minutes. 

They debated whether they should draft such a text, of course. But before that, they debated whether they should even talk about it — arguing for more than an hour about whether the main event should even be on the meeting’s agenda.

But the debate was longer than two hours and 56 minutes. In fact, the bishops had begun wrangling over a Eucharistic document well before their June meeting. 

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On March 1, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez told bishops that his working group on the Biden presidency — formed to address the unique challenges of a pro-choice Catholic president — had recommended “a document addressed to all of the Catholic faithful on Eucharistic coherence.” 

Soon after that announcement, bishops began writing competing takes about the Eucharist in the press. One cardinal took such exception to an archbishop’s position that he wrote to him calling for a “public clarification.”

Amid that debate, the Vatican weighed in, with a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that some said was a call to slow down on the Eucharistic document, and others framed as an encouragement to keep going.

And then, ahead of the June meeting, more than 60 bishops wrote to Gomez, urging him to keep the topic off the conference agenda. Except it turned out that some of the bishops listed as signatories had never agreed to sign it, or tried to distance themselves from its message

By the end of the June meeting, it was evident that the document had exposed a deep rift among the bishops over serious theological and pastoral issues. Their debate at that meeting was barbed. Their views were unveiled and direct.

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So how did it happen that five months after the June meeting, the bishops passed that controversial document with almost no debate at all? How did they pass it with only eight “no” votes? 

What changed? Was this a win for the bishops who wanted the document? A coup for those who opposed it? 

Or was it, maybe, something called synodality?

There’s one take that says that says since the document didn’t say anything about Biden, or pro-choice politicians at all, it was effectively denuded of the political “weaponization” of the Eucharist that some bishops had opposed — which made it easy to pass. On the other hand, the bishops charged with writing the text said they never planned to make mention of those politicians, and that idea wasn’t even the recommendation of Gomez’ Biden task force — so that’s not definitively the reason some people opposed the text to begin with.

There’s another take that says that since the document includes a clear “Eucharistic coherence” quote from a 2006 USCCB document — saying that “those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” — the issue of Eucharistic coherence was covered — meaning a win for those who wanted a strong text on “Eucharistic coherence.”

But, of course, the quote is nowhere near as strong, or direct, as the Latin American “Aparecida Document,” which many bishops said they wanted their document to reference. 

So why didn’t any bishops debate the document on Wednesday? Where was the anticipated final round of a year-long fight? And who won? Was this some kind of TKO, or did one side tap out? What happened? 

Several bishops — left and right — told The Pillar they think the process used in the document’s drafting was simply effective. They said that by the time bishops came to Baltimore this week, most of them felt sincerely they’d been heard.

After the debates at the June meeting, bishops got together in local and regional meetings and talked about what should figure into the text.

They talked, and talked, and debated, and probably had a couple of drinks in the process — and then they sent their comments and thoughts to the USCCB for consideration.

Bishops told The Pillar this week they thought they’d had a chance to have their say. Some added that by the time they got to Baltimore, they’d talked about it so much they were tired of the conversation, and ready to move forward.

It’s true there were executive sessions this week — closed door meetings, some of which featured vigorous discussion of the text. And it’s true that some bishops said they understood that lingering tension was supposed to be ironed out in those closed-door meetings. But no bishops have told The Pillar those executive sessions were anything like the open conflict in June.

The story that bishops are telling The Pillar — bishops consistently forthcoming about the realities of the conference — is that talking, and talking, and talking turned the debate, and the text, into a document that most bishops thought was a good expression of Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist.

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 Is that synodality? Perhaps so. 

Does it mean there will be no further clashes among the bishops, or that deep theological division has been healed? Don’t count it. 

And it’s at least possible there will be a footnote, or an epilogue, to the document’s Wednesday vote.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, a driving force among the bishops who had opposed the document, was not present for Wednesday’s debate, or the vote to adopt the text. He reportedly flew to Rome Tuesday night. That might have nothing to do with the bishops’ document. But in Baltimore, more than a few bishops have asked the question: Will there be one more round in this particular fight?

In this process, anything is possible.